Water Gilding vs Oil Gilding: What’s the Difference?

If you have ever seen a piece of art or furniture that is embellished with gold leaf, you may have wondered what the process of gilding actually entails. While there are several different techniques for gilding, two of the most common are water gilding and oil gilding. Both techniques have their own unique advantages and disadvantages, depending on the desired effect and the project at hand.

Water gilding is a technique that has been used for centuries, and is still highly regarded among traditional gilders. The process involves applying a thin layer of adhesive to the surface that will be gilded, and then carefully placing the gold leaf onto that surface. The adhesive is made from a mixture of rabbit skin glue and water, which gives it a sticky, gel-like consistency. The result is a smooth, mirror-like finish that is highly reflective and stunning to behold.

On the other hand, oil gilding is a more modern technique that is often used for commercial applications due to its durability and resistance to water damage. Instead of using a water-based adhesive, oil gilding involves applying a layer of varnish to the surface, which acts as a strong adhesive for the gold leaf. This technique is especially useful for gilding outdoor signs, furniture, and other objects that will be exposed to the elements. The finish is typically less reflective than water gilding, but can still provide a striking effect when used properly.

Gilding: An Introduction

Gilding is a technique used to apply gold leaf or gold dust to various surfaces, including wood, metal, or stone. This process has been used for centuries as a decorative art form, and it remains popular in modern decor today. There are two main types of gilding: water gilding and oil gilding. Both techniques have their advantages and disadvantages, and the results can vary depending on the type of surface being gilded and the skill level of the gilder.

The Difference Between Water Gilding and Oil Gilding

  • Water Gilding: This technique involves using a water-based adhesive called gesso to prepare the surface to be gilded. Once the gesso is applied, it is smoothed out and allowed to dry. After that, a layer of size, a liquid adhesive, is applied over the gesso. Once the size reaches a tacky consistency, the gold leaf is applied to the surface, and it adheres to the size. With water gilding, the gold leaf can be burnished, allowing it to reflect light and appear brighter. This technique creates a smooth and highly polished finish.
  • Oil Gilding: This technique involves using an oil-based adhesive instead of gesso and size. The oil-based adhesive is slower drying than the size used in water gilding, but it can make the gold leaf adhere more uniformly to the surface. Oil gilding does not allow for burnishing, so the finish is less shiny than water gilding. However, it can provide a more textured, matte appearance that is often preferred for certain types of surfaces, such as wood.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Both water gilding and oil gilding have their advantages and disadvantages. Water gilding provides a shiny, polished finish that creates a mirror-like effect. However, it can be a more complex technique, and it requires more preparation time and skill. Oil gilding is a simpler and more cost-effective process, but it does not provide the same level of shine and can be more difficult to achieve a smooth, uniform finish.

Gilding Techniques: Choosing the Right One for the Job

Choosing the right gilding technique depends on several factors, including the type of surface being gilded, the desired finish, and the skill level of the gilder. Water gilding is best suited for surfaces that require a highly polished finish, such as metal or glass. Oil gilding is better suited for surfaces that have a more textured appearance, such as wood. When deciding on a gilding technique, it’s important to consider the type of surface, the desired finish, and the level of skill required to achieve the desired result.

Water GildingOil Gilding
Highly polished finishTextured, matte appearance
Burnishing possibleNo burnishing possible
Prolonged preparation timeQuicker preparation time
More complex techniqueLess complex technique

Ultimately, the choice between water gilding and oil gilding depends on the requirements of the specific job and the preferences of the gilder. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages, and both can produce beautiful, decorative finishes when used properly.

The History of Gilding

Gilding is the process of applying a thin layer of gold, silver, or any other precious metal onto a surface. This technique has been in use since ancient times, and it is still popular today. The word “gilding” comes from the Old English word “gyldan,” which means “to cover with gold.” Gilding played a prominent role in the decoration of many historical sites, such as temples, churches, tombs, and palaces. Gilding was also used to decorate objects like statues, furniture pieces, and manuscripts.

  • Egyptian gilding:
    The earliest known examples of gilding come from ancient Egypt, where hieroglyphic inscriptions and artworks were adorned with a layer of gold leaf. Egyptian artisans used a process called water gilding, where a thin layer of animal glue was applied to the surface. The gold leaf was then placed on the glue and was pressed into place with a brush or burnishing tool.
  • Greek and Roman gilding:
    The Greeks and the Romans continued to use gilding for their art and architecture. They developed a technique called oil gilding, where a mixture of egg white and oil was used to adhere the gold leaf to the surface. This technique was used on sculptures, mosaics, and paintings.
  • Medieval Europe:
    In medieval Europe, gilding was mainly used for religious purposes. The gold leaf was applied to church altarpieces, chalices, and statues. During the Renaissance, gilding became more widespread. It was used to decorate palaces, furniture, and even clothing.

Water Gilding vs. Oil Gilding

There are two common techniques used for gilding: water gilding and oil gilding. Both techniques have their advantages and disadvantages, and they are used for different purposes.

Water Gilding:
This technique involves applying a layer of animal glue to the surface and then applying a thin layer of gold leaf on top. The gold leaf is then pressed down with a brush or burnishing tool. Water gilding creates a bright and lustrous surface, and it is often used for decorative objects that require a high level of detail and precision. However, water gilding is a delicate process, and it requires skill and patience to achieve the desired result.

Oil Gilding:
This technique involves using a mixture of egg white and oil to adhere the gold leaf to the surface. Oil gilding creates a less shiny surface compared to water gilding, but it is more durable and resistant to moisture. Oil gilding is often used for paintings, frames, and furniture pieces where durability is important. However, oil gilding is more difficult to achieve a high level of detail, and it can be messy to work with.

Water GildingOil Gilding
Bright and lustrous surfaceLess shiny surface
Delicate processMore durable and resistant to moisture
High level of detail and precisionMore difficult to achieve a high level of detail

In conclusion, gilding is a decorative technique that has played a vital role in human history and continues to be popular today. Water gilding and oil gilding are two of the most common techniques used to apply a thin layer of gold onto a surface. Each technique has its advantages and disadvantages, and it is important to choose the right technique for the intended purpose. Whether it is for religious, artistic, or decorative purposes, gilding adds a touch of luxury and elegance to any surface.

What is Water Gilding?

Water gilding is a traditional technique of applying gold leaf to a surface with the use of water, adhesive, and a burnishing tool. It has been used for centuries in the art of decoration, especially in the production of illuminated manuscripts, religious artifacts, and decorative items such as picture frames and furniture. In water gilding, the gold leaf is applied to a surface that has been prepared with a layer of adhesive, called gesso, which provides a smooth, flat surface for applying the leaf. The process typically involves the following steps:

  • Applying a layer of gesso to the surface
  • Applying a layer of bole (a red clay mixture) to the gesso
  • Applying the gold leaf to the bole with the use of water and a brush
  • Burnishing the gold leaf with a tool to create a smooth, reflective surface

The result is a surface that shimmers and reflects light, creating a luxurious effect that has been prized for centuries.

The Process of Water Gilding

Water gilding is a traditional technique used in the art of gilding. In this technique, gold leaf is applied onto a surface with the use of water and adhesive. The process is regarded as one of the oldest and most beautiful ways of gilding. This method is preferred by artists and craftsmen due to the depth and richness of the gold produced by the process.

  • Preparing the surface: The surface is extensively cleaned before the gilding begins. Any dirt, dust, or other impurities are removed to prepare a clean surface.
  • Applying the bole: A layer of bole is applied to the surface using a brush. Bole is a clay-like substance that helps to smooth out the surface and provide a suitable base for the gold leaf. The bole is allowed to dry completely before proceeding to the next step.
  • Size application: A layer of adhesive is applied over the bole via a brush or spray. The size is made from rabbit skin glue and water, and it has a similar consistency to liquid honey. The size is then allowed to dry partially.
  • Applying gold leaf: Using a gilder’s tip, gold leaf is carefully applied to the partially dried size on the surface. The gilder’s tip is a brush with a soft hair that helps to transfer the gold leaf onto the surface. The gold is applied in layers by brush until a required depth is achieved.
  • Burnishing: After the gold has been applied, the surface is allowed to dry completely before burnishing is carried out. Burnishing smooths out the bumpy surface and gives it a mirror-like finish.

Water gilding involves a lot of precision and care. It is a time-consuming process, but the results are remarkable.

Here’s a table that broadly outlines the process of water gilding:

StepDescription
1Clean the surface thoroughly
2Apply a layer of bole to the surface with a brush
3Apply a layer of adhesive (size) to the surface
4Apply gold leaf with a gilder’s tip
5Dry the surface and burnish to a mirror finish

Water gilding is an art form that requires skill and patience. It is however a long-lasting and beautiful way of decorating various objects, from sculptures to furniture.

What is Oil Gilding?

Oil gilding is a method of applying gold leaf to a surface using an oil-based adhesive. Unlike water gilding, which uses a water-based adhesive, oil gilding does not require the surface to be moistened prior to application.

  • Oil gilding is often used for outdoor applications, as the oil-based adhesive is more resistant to weathering and other environmental factors.
  • The oil used in oil gilding can vary depending on the desired result. Stand oil, made by heating linseed oil, is commonly used for a slower drying time and a glossier finish. Japan dryer, a liquid solution used to speed up the drying time of oil paint, can also be added to the adhesive to hasten the drying process.
  • Unlike water gilding, which requires multiple layers of gesso (a type of primer) to create a smooth surface, oil gilding can be applied directly to a smooth, non-porous surface.

Oil gilding can be accomplished in a few simple steps. The surface to be gilded is first coated with an oil-based adhesive, either with a brush or a spray gun. The gold leaf is then applied to the adhesive, using a soft-bristled brush or a gilder’s tip. The excess gold leaf is brushed away, leaving a smooth, shiny surface.

Overall, oil gilding is a versatile technique that can be used to achieve a range of finishes and effects. However, it is important to note that oil-based adhesives can yellow over time, which may affect the appearance of the gilded surface. It is also worth mentioning that the use of oil-based adhesives can make the gilding process more difficult to reverse, which may be a consideration when choosing a gilding method for a particular project.

ProsCons
Resistant to weatheringOil-based adhesives can yellow over time
Can be applied directly to a non-porous surfaceThe gilding process may be more difficult to reverse
Can achieve a range of finishes and effects

Despite these potential drawbacks, oil gilding remains a popular choice among artists and craftsmen due to its versatility and durability.

The Process of Oil Gilding

Oil gilding, unlike water gilding, does not require the application of a bole layer (a red clay) to adhere the gold leaf. Instead, the process of oil gilding involves adhering leafing directly onto the surface of a painted object, which has been coated with a slow-drying adhesive called “oil size.”

  • The first step in oil gilding is the preparation of the surface to be gilded. This involves making sure that the surface is smooth, clean, and free of dust or debris. Any imperfections in the surface should be sanded or filled with putty before proceeding.
  • The next step is to apply a thin layer of oil size to the surface using a brush. The size needs to be spread evenly so that the gold leaf will adhere to the surface uniformly.
  • After applying the oil size, it is left to dry for a few hours until it becomes “tacky.” This means that it is slightly sticky to the touch but not completely wet. This is the ideal time for applying the gold leaf to the surface.

It is important to handle the gold leaf with great care because it is extremely thin and delicate. The leaf is carefully laid onto the surface, making sure there are no wrinkles or folds. The leaf should be pressed gently onto the surface with a smooth brush or a gilder’s tip.

Once the gold leaf is adhered to the surface, the excess leaf is gently brushed away, leaving only the desired amount of leaf on the surface. The gilded surface is then left to dry completely for several hours before it is ready to be burnished.

One of the advantages of oil gilding is that it allows for a more textured and less uniform appearance than water gilding. The gold leaf can be laid down in a variety of patterns and sizes to create an intricate design or texture. Additionally, oil gilding can be used on a variety of surfaces, including wood, plaster, and metal.

AdvantagesDisadvantages
Allows for textured and irregular surfacesMore difficult to achieve a perfectly smooth finish
Can be used on a variety of surfacesRequires longer drying time
Easier to achieve an aged or antique lookCare must be taken when handling delicate gold leaf

Overall, oil gilding is a versatile and adaptable technique for adding a touch of luxury and beauty to any painted object. With the proper materials, tools, and techniques, anyone can master the art of oil gilding and create stunning, one-of-a-kind pieces of art or furniture.

Which is Better: Water Gilding or Oil Gilding?

Both water gilding and oil gilding are popular methods of applying gold leaf to surfaces like wood, metal, or stone. Each technique has its own strengths and weaknesses, making them suitable for different use cases.

  • Water gilding involves applying gold leaf to a surface using a water-based adhesive called gesso. The process requires more skill and preparation than oil gilding, but the end result is a smoother and more lustrous finish. Water gilding is best suited for decorative objects that need to stand out, such as religious icons, picture frames, and carvings.
  • Oil gilding, on the other hand, involves applying gold leaf to a surface using an oil-based adhesive. This method is simpler and less time-consuming than water gilding, making it suitable for larger objects or surfaces like ceilings and walls. Oil gilding can also be less expensive, as it doesn’t require as many specialized materials or tools.
  • One advantage of oil gilding is that it is more durable and resistant to wear and tear than water gilding. The oil-based adhesive creates a stronger bond with the surface, which makes it less likely that the gold leaf will flake or peel off. However, this can also be a disadvantage if the object needs to be restored or repaired, as oil gilding can be more difficult to remove or modify than water gilding.

In terms of which technique is “better,” it really depends on the specific project and the desired outcome. If you’re looking for a high-quality, luxurious finish for a small decorative object, water gilding is probably the way to go. If you need to cover a large area with gold leaf or want a more durable finish, oil gilding may be a more practical choice. Ultimately, the decision should be based on factors like the size and surface type of the object, the desired level of detail and finish, and the available time and resources.

Conclusion

Both water gilding and oil gilding are effective techniques for applying gold leaf to various surfaces. While water gilding offers a more lustrous finish and is best suited for decorative objects, oil gilding is more durable and practical for larger surfaces. The choice between the two techniques ultimately depends on the specific project and desired outcome.

Additional Resources

ResourceDescriptionLink
Traditional Water Gilding TechniquesA comprehensive guide to water gilding techniques, including step-by-step instructions and recommended tools and materials.https://www.goldenleafproducts.com/pages/water-gilding-techniques
An Introduction to Oil GildingA beginner’s guide to oil gilding, covering topics like surface preparation, adhesive application, and finishing.https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/features/an-introduction-to-oil-gilding
Gold Leaf SuppliesA UK-based supplier of gold leaf and other gilding materials, with a wide range of products and helpful resources.https://goldleafsupplies.co.uk/

What is the difference between water gilding and oil gilding?

1. What is water gilding?
Water gilding is a technique of gilding where gold leaf is applied to a surface that has been coated with gesso. The gesso is then wetted with water, and the gold leaf is applied to the wet surface. This technique creates a highly polished and reflective finish.

2. What is oil gilding?
Oil gilding, on the other hand, is a technique where gold leaf is applied to a surface that has been coated with oil-based paint, varnish, or other substances that do not dissolve in water. This technique creates a more matte finish.

3. How long does it take for each technique to dry?
Water gilding typically dries faster than oil gilding since water evaporates quicker than oil. Water gilding can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to dry completely, while oil gilding can take several days or even weeks to dry.

4. Which technique is more durable?
Both water gilding and oil gilding are durable techniques when done correctly. However, water gilding may be less durable than oil gilding since water can cause the gesso layer to expand and contract, leading to cracking and flaking over time.

5. Which technique is more expensive?
Water gilding tends to be more expensive than oil gilding since it requires more materials and time to complete. Water gilding also produces a higher-quality finish, which results in a higher price.

Closing Thoughts

Now that you know the difference between water gilding and oil gilding, you can decide which technique is right for your project. Whether you want a highly polished and reflective finish or a more matte look, both techniques can achieve beautiful results. Thank you for reading, and please visit again for more information.